In 1970, there were four, no five births in Asiama, the fictional town in Chimeka Garricks debut novel – Tomorrow Died Yesterday. Doye was born, Tubo was born, Amaibi was born, Kaniye was born and oil, oil was born. These five births would merge, like ropes they would intertwine, and when they would separate, due to circumstances beyond their control, it would have powerful implications for the ones they love, and the ones who love them.
Tomorrow died yesterday is set in the Niger Delta. Mr. Garricks tells the story of 4 lives touched by the corruption stemming from Nigeria’s oil boom, and how nothing ever really returns back to normal after its been stained by oil.
The author of Tomorrow Died Yesterday was working a hectic day job as a lawyer when he wrote the book. I remember him telling the story at a reading in Port Harcourt about 9 years ago. He would carve out a few hours from his busy daily routine to write it. The resulting book is an unforgettable story. It combines a narrative style you can find in Festus Iyayi’s Violence with a worldbuilding style similar to what Dan Brown does with Robert Langdon’s world, in books like the Davinci Code or Angels and Demons.
We can see clearly that Chimeka Garricks has a book where all the characters are sketched out and their characteristics labeled carefully, kind of like how you build a player in PlayStation. Kaniye – Bald, handsome, jovial, carefree, witty, badass cook. Then to deepen the characters, he has a pack of stories and multiple points of view to show their qualities and establish their voice. A good example is the scene on pages 70 and 71, where Amaibi has a stick raised. He is about to hit Doye for killing a crab, Kaniye tries to diffuse the situation, saying to Amaibi – “Please give it to me (the stick he means), before you kill our Hercules.” That story establishes the uniqueness of the characters quite well. If Tomorrow Died Yesterday was a house, music would be playing somewhere downstairs as you wander through the house. And when you can smell native soup from a particular room, you know it is Kaniye’s room.
When Dan Brown builds a world for Professor Robert Langdon his famous hero, you sometimes have to look for maps of Rome to confirm that this is still fiction, and it usually is. What he does is use elements from the real world to prop up his fantasy, Mr. Garricks does this too, using historically accurate facts mixed with fiction, he builds Asiama. And as the sun rises on Asiama’s beach, we can almost feel like we are there. We all know where Imperial Oil is in Port Harcourt. We even know its real name is Shell Oil. When we read about the raid by the soldiers on Asiama, we know he is talking about the Odi massacre of 1999.
It was Teju Cole, who once likened the process of editing a story to the process of writing music. You move paragraphs like notes, looking for where they fit most perfectly. Slow, fast, slow, fast, mellow, up then down, till the reader is breathless and panting for more. The book opens with a kidnap scene like something out of an action film, then it segues into a company boardroom, with people around a table discussing the kidnap. We move from Tubo fascinating young altar boys and us the readers with a story about Thunder Balogun’s powerful left leg, into a scene where the boys are relaxing at the beach. We go from a heated courtroom scene, sweat staining white collars to the characters back at the restaurant, music in the background as they eat. And on it goes, like finely paced music.
However, Mr. Garricks is not always the perfect choirmaster, sometimes the voices slip away from him and you can’t tell if its Doughboy or Amaibi speaking. When Doye takes Kaniye to Asiama waterside, he tries to prove that he is a king and it was not just about money, when he said to Kaniye – “Take this and give it to them………. I am sure they will take it from you, but let’s see if they will worship you.” In moments like that the language used in the dialogue veers towards unbelievable, but dialogues are difficult to write.
Ursula K LeGuin once said the story is not in the plot, but in the telling. And this is where Mr. Garricks excels. The book is a ‘show don’t tell’ masterclass. When Kaniye finds out, his father did not give him alone the colorful ball but shared it in the village square to other kids, Mr. Garricks does not need to tell us about the pain of the betrayal, we can feel its sting.
In the characters, each of us finds a piece of ourselves.
Against the backdrop of a hopeless Nigeria, we all react in different ways. So, who are you?
Are you Tubo? Who says – “This is why I lie because people can’t accept the truth.” Have you given up and are only focused on securing the bag?
Are you Kaniye, who strikes a balance? Who accepts ‘blood money’ to build a restaurant, enjoys the good life, yet steps in to help when his friends need help? Do you know when to fight and when to back away?
Are you Amaibi? Who is timid, constantly second-guessing himself, yet, so focused on doing the right thing no matter what?
Or are you Doughboy? Doye Koko. A realist who realizes there is no point trying to change Nigeria, so he joins in the looting. While secretly even without knowing it, he hopes for some kind of justice?
That’s how Mr. Garricks gets in our heads, that’s the magic he performs, every other thing is smoke and mirrors, that is the real story being told. The story of the Nigerian condition and how we all try to live with it.